Your “Tick” to Creativity

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(Photo taken from an art gallery in The Venetian Hotel, Las Vegas, 2017)

When you hit a creative block, it sometimes helps to follow your anger. Criticism rather that polite praise can work more wonders than you think. Throughout my personal and professional life, I have received a fair share of hurtful comments, outlandish critiques, and harsh judgements. Of the many, those from a very strict manager I used to work with were the most critical, toughest words I have ever received for my concept designs. Deep down, I knew he was coming from a place of heart and did this in my best interest to succeed professionally. He wanted to push my potential to the limit, even to a 25-year-old entry-level employee with barely any experience in the industry.

Whenever I showed my manager my crappy concepts, he would sarcastically ask, “What would the client think?” I would go back to the drawing board, huffing and puffing inside, knowing fully well that I had failed in his eyes. Rightly so, I did suck at developing residential design concepts in the beginning. I also naively thought they were good and, looking back, they were terrible and my manager was right. While his critiques were big blows to my self-esteem, I channeled my frustration to developing better and more creative designs, to prove my worth and to show him I can get to his level one day. I eventually did get much better and faster at developing concepts, after many hours of practice and many rolls of trace paper.

So that this impressed my new manager at my new job recently. When I showed him three concepts for a neighborhood park, the manager was actually taken aback and was torn between choosing one of the three. That was the biggest compliment to date in my professional career. Not positive words like a “good job”, but the reaction of surprise and indecisiveness of several great designs was the long-awaited approval I have worked so hard for.

If it weren’t for my previous manager’s criticism early on in my career, I probably would have foolishly still been producing unaspiring work today. His critiques were my main motivation to do better and propelled me to become a full-fledged professional who can come up with really cool, interesting concepts for many different types of design projects now.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. One outlet of inspiration is from constructive criticism, as this is actually my biggest driver to keep improving and keep going. Try to use criticisms to your advantage and not only do better, but also overcome and overachieve in front of others who have placed doubt in you. Take actions to prove them wrong and be “so good they can’t ignore you” (a quote by Cal Newport). Find what make you “tick” and funnel all that energy to become somebody others never thought possible. You would surprise even yourself at how far you can go.

Another person’s doubt could be the path to your greatest victory yet.

30 New Things I Learned During a Month in Quarantine

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No, it did not involve a skill or language. With more time alone and isolated, I have been learning new, little bits of information every day since the shelter-in-place has started. The lack of social obligations has really freed up my time to focus on doing things I want to do and being more observant of my surroundings. None of these things were hard to learn and sometimes a quick Google search can do the trick. Some things were learned from an embarrassing scenario or by random too. If anything, being imperfect has probably taught me more than actively trying to be perfect.

  1. From hearing wild turkeys gobbling loudly outside my house for the past few days, I learned it is now mating season for turkeys this time of year.
  2. The quote, “I am not a businessman, I am a business, man,” by Jay-z.
  3. Bananas can be artificially ripen in the oven and then used to make banana bread.
  4. There were a lot of SATs words that I looked up (but now have forgotten) in Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book City of Girls.
  5. Investing is a fancy word for reallocating savings.
  6. A couple of passionate 450-word emails to my city and local park district to close a park entrance in the middle of my neighborhood during the stay at home order worked.
  7. A digital cleanse of unwanted email subscriptions can be mentally refreshing.
  8. Homemade cheesecake and apple cinnamon coffee cake taste way better after a day in the fridge.
  9. Washing my hair every other day and not blow drying it has made my hair appear healthier and stronger.
  10. There is a keyboard shortcut to toggle WIFI on and off on a Windows laptop. (I accidentally pressed the keys in an effort to take a screenshot and I embarrassingly spent 15 minutes on the phone with our office IT guy trying to resolve my remote desktop connection. He was not amused.)
  11. A new high yield savings account can be opened a lot easier than I originally thought through an online application.
  12. A male barista at my local bakery shop is always chirpy and enthusiastic towards customers every time I grab coffee to go once a week.
  13. Weeding is much easier to do in the cool, cloudy mornings than in late afternoon.
  14. The unconscious fact that I have been touching my face a lot before the pandemic and now have roughly reduced the number of times by about half.
  15. The podcast “What You Will Learn” is literally the audible version of spark notes on books in topics ranging from investments, lifestyle, non-fiction, and self-help.
  16. Placing hot brown butter too quickly into the cookie mix can make the texture of the baked cookies flat and runny.
  17. Social “dieting” and social distancing can go hand-in-hand and nobody is the wiser about your unknown whereabouts.
  18. There is usually some technical difficulty when doing a virtual hangout session, but this can be resolved pretty quickly.
  19. Reusable mesh produce bags can be washed in the washing machine on delicate mode and air dried after.
  20. The quote, “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies,” by Walt Disney.
  21. Wear sunblock even when going outside on a cloudy day.
  22. Salt and pepper are not the only seasonings that can make soups and curries tasty.
  23. Installing a new TV wall mount requires locating existing wall stud locations and figuring out where to anchor wood screws to ensure a secure and stable wall mount installation.
  24. The time to cook or bake takes longer than you think.
  25. Washing my face in the shower with regular bar soap has helped cleared my skin (on top of washing my face in the morning and at night with a facial cleanser).
  26. People appreciate receiving a direct phone call or voicemail message when I was attempting to contact a sales representative of a paving company for work.
  27. Frozen kimchi pancakes are actually very flavorful and delicious when I stir fried them.
  28. Correcting my posture with three pillows in my home office chair has done wonders.
  29. Re-watching episodes of The Office on Netflix is a good default entertainment during lunch breaks. (It feels like I am in an office setting when I am working from home.)
  30. Little joys like passing by spring blooms or not burning steaming vegetables can brighten up my day.

You can learn something new every day. It does not need to be a difficult mathematical equation or trying to solve world peace. Dial it back down and learn something easy and simple that you didn’t know or notice before. Learning something new does not have to be boring or tiresome either and should be something that excites you and lets you pause for a moment. My greatest motivation is knowing I am not perfect and that I don’t know everything, even with a masters degree and several years of industry experience. There is always something you can learn, you just need to go look for it.

Happy Monday and carpe diem!

Rethinking Parks as a Landscape Designer For Post COVID-19

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Public parks are closed, but my ideas about public parks are not.

I was wondering how my work as a professional landscape designer can make a difference during times of a full blown global crisis. In actuality, COVID-19 has made me rethink about what public parks can actually mean for people. The mental aspect of public parks has never mattered more until the pandemic happened. Sure, healing and “zen” gardens have been designed in many spaces, but typically in healthcare campuses and hospital environments. But why does it stop there? Can’t these types of spaces be weaved into public parks with other programs such as children playgrounds and open courts?

These are the questions I have been asking myself when developing public park concepts and being cooped up at home for the past six weeks. The ability to work from home and continue working on projects as a landscape designer with a financially healthy company has been a grateful blessing and I am now more diligent than ever before to use my experience and understanding to create concepts for public parks that is not only functional and aesthetic in form, but also mentally calming when being inside the park. Adults need sanctuary and healing spaces too and have the chance to go to parks not only for recreational purposes or watch their children play in the playground.

The pandemic has actually sparked a fire-breathing dragon of creativity inside me to create spaces that are relaxing and tranquil within public parks. There is never a better opportunity to start now. I have been given the opportunity to design multiple parks for a neighborhood development project and certainly did not let this go to waste even while being isolated and working remotely. It did take some adjustment to sketch ideas on an 8 ½ x 11″ paper with a 100’ scaled base, but this did not stop me from developing really cool and interesting ideas about how to incorporate such spaces in 5-acre public parks.

And guess what? The project manager loved my ideas and told me so with five exclamation marks. He’s also the type that barely shows much emotion through a Zoom message or let alone, leave any punctuation marks at the end of a sentence. While I can contribute financially to the pandemic – and I do have the sufficient means to do so – I wanted to help in a different way and something that has a lasting impact to locals and even visitors from afar. I have the power to make spaces good, but I also have the power to create something truly unique and better for everyone. These times of uncertainty is not a time to be lazy or uncreative; it is a time to start thinking, be creative, and do things fearlessly (not recklessly).

It is ok to be afraid, but not to live in fear. This period of instability is making many people anxious, including myself. But I choose not to dwell in the rabbit hole of worry and have opted to instead figure out ways to contribute professionally (through concept ideas) and personally (virtual hangouts with friends and constant updates with immediate family members). Just remember you do not have to be the best or the brightest to think of big ideas, you just need to start and keep going.

Minimal Ways to Maximize Ideas

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Ideas can sprout anywhere. It does not always come in the perfect environment, the best timing, or an ideal location. If anything, they come at the oddest and most inconvenient moments. Knowing this, there are ways to help foster ideas and spark creativity by sticking to using basic tools in a not-so-perfect setting. Being minimalistic and even messy can spark big ideas. As a landscape designer by profession and a general creator in my free time, I have found ways to maximize creativity by using minimalistic tactics. This is not always pretty or organized, but, truthfully, the root of creative ideas never are anyways. They are usually the rawest and roughest form of bigger ideas, which is how ideas are naturally generated.

1. Use basic tools to sketch ideas.

A clean, new sheet of scratch paper makes me nervous and could actually hinder me from developing new ideas. I agonize too much over ruining the new sheet and beat myself over about whether or not the first line is worth drawing on. I also get too stressed over the possibility that if the idea sucks, then the new sheet is wasted. So instead, I became more flexible to drawing my ideas on a random paper or something accessible at the time, like the back of a scratch printed paper, on a lined journal page, or on a paper napkin. I became accustomed to sketching on things not exactly designed for ideas, but they are still economical, resourceful, and practical. Most ideas are produced by chance too and not at the dedicated times when I sit and stare over a blank piece of paper, so it is okay to grab whatever piece of paper is handy.

A basic working pen or pencil can be more appropriate to use for ideas than a fancier one. As long as the pencil or pen produces enough ink or marking without too much effort, then it remains an effective tool in drafting ideas. I prefer to use a black ink pen because this forces me to commit to the sketch without the ability to erase or retreat from my initial thoughts. Inked sketches also help keep a permanent track record of the ideas that were thought out, so I can go back and revisit earlier versions if the one I developed does not work out. I can use fancier pens or pencils later on once I finalize my ideas and want to draw a final design.

 2. Sketch small first then bigger later.

 I tend to draw in small, quick bursts rather than in larger and slower movements, especially when ideas start to flow all at once. I draw multiple sketches of a singular idea and if I do not see it working out, I move on to a completely different idea and keep repeating this cycle until I reach a satisfactory point where the idea can be truly finessed. This helps maintain idea flow and avoids wasting too much pen or paper during the brainstorming process. Drawing small can be messy and disorganized, but the whole point of the sketching exercise is to develop ideas, not constrain them. The messier the paper is, the better.

3. Maximize comfort and limit distractions when brainstorming ideas.

When deliberately trying to brainstorm ideas, it does not really matter where you are, as long as you are able to concentrate and are in a comfortable environment when doing so. The place can be at a local coffee shop, a computer desk, or even on your bed. There is no right place for generating ideas, just one where your ideas can flow freely and with little to no distractions. The space should match your comfort level and be spacious and tidied enough to draw. Your ideas can be messy, but the space around your sketch should be cleared and free of obstructions.

It also helps to turn off your computer or phone, so you will not be disturbed by an impromptu text message or swayed to procrastinate on your computer. You can listen to music or have something playing in the background if this helps you with your creative juices going. Try to concentrate for twenty minutes  – or longer if you can – and then take breaks in between by grabbing a snack or taking a walk outside. Taking breaks can be just as important when developing ideas. Sometimes when we are not actively thinking about ideas or productively procrastinating, the ideas come out in full force. Do have a paper and pen handy when they do come out of nowhere because they usually do half of the time.